SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange–Maplewood Community Coalition on Race held a communitywide forum on safety and policing on June 13, bringing the police chiefs from both towns together with the chairpersons from the South Orange Community Police Collaborative and the Maplewood Community Board on Police to discuss local and regional crime and what the communities can do to be safe and welcoming.
“This organization was formed by a multiracial group of residents who were concerned about incidents in the community but, more importantly, misconceptions about our two towns that were based primarily on fear,” CCR executive committee Vice Chairperson Robert Marchman said at the event. “Recently we started hearing concerns from residents about crime in the community, and some of the statements harken back to things we heard 25 years ago, which had racial overtones.”
When speaking about crime trends, SOPD Chief Ernesto Morillo said there is a bigger issue with perception of crime than with actual crime. In South Orange, there has been a steep decline in crime during the last two to three years and a downward trend since 2018.
“We’re falling more or less in line with the state,” Morillo said when talking about crime statistics. “We’re a little advanced with the number of shopliftings that we’ve had to deal with, but, outside of that, I think it’s more perception than anything else as far as an uptick in crime. In actuality, our numbers are showing a trend that is downward.”
Maplewood, by contrast, is seeing an increase in its crime statistics, according to MPD Chief Jimmy DeVaul. The biggest jump has been in motor vehicle theft; Maplewood has seen 53 this year so far, which is already double what the town saw by this time last year. He credited it to Maplewood’s geography being different from South Orange’s and it being easier to find cars to steal in Maplewood.
“Things were different during COVID because everybody was home,” DeVaul said when talking about burglaries, which have increased in Maplewood. “We’re getting more burglaries now, because not as many people are home. When your home doesn’t have an alarm, it makes it easy prey.”
Both Morillo and DeVaul said one reason that the two towns have different crime rates is because, while they are similar, they have different borders. Most crime happens not in the center of town but along the outskirts, and South Orange and Maplewood have different-sized borders near different towns.
“Maplewood shares a much longer border with different cities than we do,” Morillo said. “We touch on different parts of communities for smaller points. Most of these types of crimes don’t happen in the center of town. The larger your border lines are, the higher your numbers are going to be. It’s very predictable.”
In another portion of the forum, the CCR discussed when residents should and shouldn’t call the police if they think they are witnessing a crime. Alexis Karteron, an associate law professor at Rutgers University and the director of the Rutgers Constitutional Rights Clinic, spoke on the topic.
“While the police departments in South Orange and Maplewood are here to serve all of us and keep us safe, they also are not free to act on suspicions that are not rooted in very clear or articulable facts,” Karteron said at the event. “I think it’s really important that we all keep that in mind, and maybe think about it when calling the police to say when something is off. We don’t want to put the police department in the position of relying on hunches.”
Karteron said police are limited in what they can do unless they are given a specific description of a suspect, which is why residents should think about racial profiling and why they feel they need to call the department.
“When it comes to racial profiling, the police are entitled to stop someone who’s suspected of criminal activity, but there needs to be a specific description,” Karteron said. “The police are limited to what they can do when it comes to a vague, general description.”
Sara Wakefield, an associate professor of criminal justice at Rutgers, was also a panelist at the forum. When talking about crime rates and the reason they rise and fall over time, she said that she has been expecting them to go up after quite a while of low rates.
“It’s also worth remembering the pandemic and what it did to everybody,” Wakefield said. “It burdened some populations much more than others, so we have a lot of disruption. It is worth thinking about what crime actually looks like. It’s hard to know that because national crime statistics are delayed by about 18 months, so (we) often don’t have an accurate perception of what’s happening.”
She added that the safest communities are not those that wait for police to show up but those whose residents help one another.
“It’s more than just looking around and calling,” Wakefield said. “It’s paying attention to your surroundings, but also paying attention to your neighbors. I worry that if we’re all focused on where our keys are and who’s around us, we forget that safe communities are those that are in connection with one another.”